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Discrimination against women in the workplace can be subtle, study says

Discrimination against women in the workplace can be subtle, study says

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Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — A new study suggests sexism towards women is alive and well in the workplace but it might not be as blatant as it was in the past.

Dr. Susan Madsen, a professor of management at Utah Valley University's Woodbury School of Business said women and leadership literature discuss the term "second-generation gender bias."

"The first generation bias was more hostile toward women," said Madsen. "People would say specifically to women ‘you shouldn't be in the workplace because you should be home with kids.'"

A new study from the Harvard Business School suggests now sexism against women in the workplace is much more subtle.

The study discussed gender and workplace dynamics at a 2013 Harvard Business School conference. The term "benevolent sexism" was used to illustrate the on-going discrimination against women in the workforce.

Researchers found that women in the workforce received more narrative praise than their male counterparts but lower numerical ratings related to job performance. Experts said this meant that bosses were too nice to openly criticize the women and, as a result, those employees didn't get the feedback they needed to improve or advance in their careers.


What we need to do is take a professional kind of approach, to give people the feedback regardless of race, gender, and status.

–Jeff Herring, U of U


"We all have biases," said Madsen. "And sometimes we don't know what those biases are."

Experts say employers and managers need to become educated about personal biases and how they can impair a manager's ability to offer honest feedback to women and other minority groups.

"If we can get into giving that correct feedback and making it a culture of performance, a culture of feedback," said Jeff Herring, chief human resource officer at the University of Utah, "then it takes away some of these personal biases that we might have."

KSL.com News Director Spencer Hall said as employers work to fill their teams with a diversity of voices and experience, bosses can carry deep-seated biases that affect the way they offer feedback and promotions to women.

"They'll say they think they're great, they'll compliment them," said Hall, "but not necessarily give them the same promotions that they would a male counterpart doing the same work."

Human resource experts said self-awareness can help cut down on "second-generation" gender bias in the workforce, and bias against other minority groups. Herring said one of the challenges is some bosses tend to be nice when giving criticism for fear of offending the employee.

"The ‘nice' approach gets us into trouble in these areas where I want to comply with societal norms," said Herring. "What we need to do is take a professional kind of approach, to give people the feedback regardless of race, gender, and status."

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Management and leadership experts said one of the problems in Utah that could be contributing to the "second-generation" gender bias in the workplace is the lack of awareness in giving good feedback and receiving feedback.

"Open the doors for women. Treat them well," said Madsen. "There could be some confusion coming across as demeaning sometimes."

Madsen also recommended women and other minorities become aware of possible new ways of how sex discrimination is popping up in the workplace, so that they can stand up for themselves and better negotiate their careers.

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